port of harlem magazine
black memorabilia show
Heroine Nanny Helen Burroughs Celebrated
Jun 2 – Jun 15, 2022
Praising the Past

nannie helen burroughs

"We've heard about her. But we don't know about her," quipped the eighty-eight-year-old retired Colonel James Wyatt. “I only discovered Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) when I was seventy-four and passed Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, Northeast in Washington, DC on my way to play golf,” he added.

The Colonel was on his way to the historic Langston Golf Course, when the three-times a week golfer became quizzical upon “seeing a street named after a woman.” So, he asked his golfing buddies who was she. “The best answer they could give me was that she had started a school in Northeast DC.”

After two years of combing through more than 110,000 pieces of information about the educator at the Library of Congress, he started The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project. Wyatt says it seems like he had gotten his marching orders from his deceased mother. He continued, “I had finally found another person, who shared the views my mother had taught me. That's when I started the project, funding it with my personal resources.” He said in jest, "I think my mother hung out with Nannie Helen Burroughs.”
Burroughs' school was the first vocational school for Black women and girls in the country . . . providing academic studies (including courses in Black history), religious instruction, and technical training . . . to prepare Black women for the work typically available to them.
The project aims to change the answers “we,” the people, give when asked about the historic post-Emancipation era educator and to interject her views into today’s racial, political, and educational rhetoric on par with her contemporaries including Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune.

Patricia, his wife, graduated from Burroughs’ Foreign Missionary Field Service program in 1968. The Harlemite met her then future husband on the school’s campus in 2014. She was there to speak to students about the profound impact the educator had on her work in Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the United States with adolescent and teenage mothers with children.

In 2020, the proteges of Burroughs married. “I felt like I had married Nannie Helen Burroughs’ son,” she quipped, almost echoing her husband’s spiritual relationship with Burroughs.

On Saturday, May 28, the Martin Luther King Library in Washington hosted a mini-symposium on Burroughs. Through posters, handouts, and discussions, the Wyatts shared their research findings, personal experiences, and the views and vision of the devout Christian. They are accepting inquiries to repeat the Burroughs mini-symposium.

Burroughs, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and Mary McLeod Bethune are often known as "The 3 Bs of Education."  They took their lead from matriarch, Lucy Craft Laney.  Together, they are often dubbed the “Fab 4” of education.

Born in the Blue Ridge foothills town of Orange, Virginia, Burroughs was an 1896 honors graduate of Washington, DC's M Street School, now Dunbar High School, where Morgan State University Archivist Dr. Ida Jones plans to install a historical marker in her honor. “They all started celebrated schools in the deep South, except Burroughs whose National Training School for Women and Girls (NTSWG) was started in 1909 in the mid-Atlantic region.”
Her school was staffed, managed, and funded by African Americans.
NTSWG was the first vocational school for Black women and girls in the country. The boarding high school and junior college provided academic studies (including courses in Black history), religious instruction, and technical training in trades ranging from home economics and printing to shoe repair to prepare Black women for the work typically available to them. NTSWG also advocated for racial uplift through self-help and was unique in that it was staffed, managed, and funded by African Americans.

Three years after her death, the school became known as the Nannie Helen Burroughs School. It closed in 2013. The second building is still standing.
Some of the Wyatts’ favorite quotes of Burroughs demonstrate her kinship to Booker T. Washington, Black pride, feminism, and devotion to Christianity:

As a close friend of Booker T. Washington, Burroughs embraced his industrial educational philosophy. The affinity is reflected in her quote, "If you don't have a job, make one." However, she established a bilateral education curriculum which included the views of W.E.B. DuBois, Washington’s contemporary who often appealed to those who rebuffed Washington. Her students included women and girls from Africa, the Caribbean, and India.

Her mindful independence, especially during a time Black people were getting lynched may be reflected in this quote:  "They tell this story about my grandmother ... She would say, ‘yes, honey, I was enslaved, but I wasn't no slave.  I was just in it. They may have slaved my body, but they didn't slave my mind.’"

Her feminism was stark, especially given that women didn’t even have the right to vote. "...your advice as to the disposition of this matter is so strange that I cannot understand it ... What in the world do you mean by saying that you (as a woman) want the women to authorize you to ask Doctor Williams (a man) to act for the Women's Convention? Aren't you the president...?” she once said.

Then, Burroughs also had views based in Christian beliefs that many would challenge today. She said "If you remove the 18th (prohibition) Amendment, you will start on the 13th, 14th and 15th (Black rights) Amendments.  We don't follow the Ten Commandments, but we don't try to remove them."
Note: Contact the Wyatts to schedule a Burroughs mini-symposium by email or 410-991-4072.

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